Ketchikan comes from the native words “kitsdhk-hin” meaning “The Thundering Wings of An Eagle”. Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island amidst the Inside Passage, a popular cruise route along Alaska's southeastern coast. It's known for its many totem poles, on display throughout town. Nearby Misty Fiords National Monument is a glacier-carved wilderness featuring snowcapped mountains, waterfalls and salmon spawning streams. It's also home to rich wildlife including black bears, wolves and bald eagles.
Alaskan towns like Ketchikan didn't just spring forth. They rose out of
industries that were founded on the area's vast store of natural
resources: gold, copper, salmon and timber. In the early 20th century,
prospectors came in droves to make their fortunes- the lust for gold
and other Earth nuggets set the stage for the mining, fishing
and timber industries to come.
The Timber Years
With miles of coastline lined with Sitka spruce, hemlock, and cedar, SE
Alaska was a boon for handloggers who made their living felling trees
and skidding them into the water for transport to the mill. From
handloggerg who single-handedly felled trees to the advent of power
tools, logging has changed a lot in Alaska since the first trees were
commercially harvested in 1900.
Handloggers who came to Ketchikan in the late 1800s, carried either a double-bitted
iron ax or a one-man crosscut saw-the state-of-the-art back then, which required
both brute strength and stamina. The two-man crosscut saw, which allowed loggers to
work faster, started seeing use in the early 1900s. Often referred to as a "misery whip"
or "Swedish fiddle" the two-man saw required a rhythmic ballet of sorts; loggers often
chanted, "Come to me, go to you" in an effort to keep pace with the fellow at the other
end of the saw.
Alaska's rough weather and punishing terrain ensured that handloggers never lacked
for an extra-dangerous and difficult day's work. According to Ketchikan legend,
Handlogger Jackson (pictured), the hardest part of the job was sometimes getting the
tools to the tree. "Packing a load of falling tools up a steep, slippery hillside over
boulders and fallen trees, through thickets of brush and devil's club, around bluffs and
precipices, is exhausting," he wrote in his book, Handloggers. "I have left many a fine
tree standing because it was just too hard to get up to.
After Tongas timber became a bona fide multi-million dollar industry,
with the spruce mill, 50-year government contracts, and the pulp mill
running 24/7, the logging industry in Alaska became a poster child for
wreaking general environmental havoc. The heyday of logging in SE
Alaska effectively ended when the US government chose not to honor
its contract with the Ketchikan Pulp Mill. Without a steady timber
source, the mill could not afford to update its facilities to be EPA
"People down south (aka the lower 48) have a preconceived idea that the land here in
Alaska is being raped and pillaged and that's what basically shut the industry down,"
says former logger Brad Miller. "Basically, it was people from other areas deciding
what was best for us.
Traditional camps set up near remote worksites, with bunk barracks
and cookhouses, gave hardworking loggers room and board
throughout the long six-day work week. On the seventh day, they
piled into bush planes, flew into Ketchikan and partied. Hard. Those
who lived in float camps with their families engaged in less bar-
storming pursuits in their off hours-choosing instead to spend time
hunting, fishing, trapping, and spending time enjoying the Tongass National Rainforest.
The 1997 Mill Closure
In late 1996, Ketchikan Pulp Company completed the last of the pollution control improvements for its pulp mill and then negotiated an early end to its contract. The pulp mill permanently closed in March 1997; but, KPC attempted to facilitate a future for its logging and sawmill employees by installing a veneer plant that could utilize the small low-grade logs that had previously been converted to pulp mill chips. In the months leading up to this final long-term sale termination, the Department of Agriculture agreed to a three-year continuation of the long-term timber sale in order to provide adequate timber for a seamless transition into a future without the long-term commitments. Unfortunately for the industry and most of the communities in Southeast Alaska, the seamless transition never happened.
In 1997, the Forest Service adopted a new land management plan for the Tongass and the agency announced that it intended to switch to “ecosystem management”. Under this new philosophy, timber sales became a by-product of ecosystem management and attention to timber sale economics was abandoned. The new land management plan included extremely costly timber sale design constraints that raised the cost of harvesting timber enormously. These constraints included mandating that 30-50% of the timber be left standing in most previously developed areas. The harvesting costs in these areas should have been very low because the roads were already in place; but, the partial-cutting requirement instead made these some of the highest cost areas to operate. The partial cutting requirement also raised grave concerns about worker safety. Other costly constraints included oversize buffers on non-fish streams, a greatly expanded beach fringe no-cut buffer and a system of old-growth reserves that set-aside over a million acres of the highest value, lowest cost timberlands.
As the pre-1997 timber sales were harvested and the newly designed timber sales were advertised, the economic impact of the 1997 land management plan became apparent and despite good markets for hemlock, spruce and cedar lumber many of the timber sales that were advertised during this period appraised enormously deficit due to the high cost impact of the 1997 land management plan. The region’s sawmills initially purchased only the economic timber sales, but as the mills depleted their volume of timber-under- contract, they began worrying about mill closures and losing their customers.
In desperation the mills began purchasing marginal and deficit timber sales and by 2001 the bulk of the timber-under-contract was comprised mostly of deficit timber sales and the mills were losing money. About this time, Congress began prohibiting the agency from offering timber sales that did not appraise with a full profit and risk allowance. In 2003 and 2004 many of the deficit timber sales that had been purchased were mutually terminated when the purchasers, the agency and Congress all recognized that those high- cost timber sales could never be economic.
This legislation eliminated most of the deficit timber sales, but the agency planners did not have an economic mandate and they continued to prepare NEPA documents (Environmental Impact Statements) for timber sales without regard to economic common sense. Consequently, only a small percentage of the post 1997 NEPA-approved timber sales were actually ever offered. Environmental activists recognized a new opportunity to obstruct timber sales - they began dividing the cost of the Environmental Impact Statements by the small volume of timber that was actually sold and then urged Congress to stop funding timber sales in Alaska arguing fiscal prudence. Others more rationally argued that it made more sense to fix the economic problems than to end the timber sales.
As a result of the changes in management of the national forest, the federal timber sale program has shrunk by about 90%; and, since the Tongass National Forest encompasses about 93% of the timberlands in Southeast Alaska, the timber industry has similarly declined. Manufacturing integration, the economy of scale and a supply of timber adequate for normal sawmill operations were all eliminated as the timber supply declined. The most recent TLMP Amendment, announced in early 2008, must eliminate these unworkable prescriptions if there is to be a timber industry in Southeast Alaska. The Forest Service vows this new plan will support an efficient and sustainable industry. With minimal timber remaining under contract and with a land management plan that looks a lot like the failed 1997 plan, the future of the timber industry is uncertain.
- 80th Congress, 1st Session-Chapters 516-518-Aug 8, 1947
- USDA Forest Service, Sale Prospectus, Ketchikan Pulp Timber Unit, June 14, 1948
- Ketchikan Pulp Company, Our First 20 Years, Tom Flanagan, President, 1974
- Preliminary Examination of the Timber Stands in the Ketchikan Pulp Unit, John P. VanOrsdel, Forester, Aug 31, 1946
- Timber Sale Agreement, Ketchikan Pulp and Paper Company, Contract #A10fs-1042, 7/26/51
- 1955 Yearbook of Alaska Timber Industries
- The Forest Service Timber Appraisal System, A Historical Perspective, 1891-1981, USDA Forest Service, Al Wiener, Former Chief of Timber Appraisal, Aug 1982
- Clearcutting in Coastal Alaska, USDA-Alaska Division-Forest Service, 1972
- Ketchikan Pulp Company, Annual Report, 1956
- A History of the US Forest Service in Alaska, Lawrence Rakestraw, June 2002